“I told the doctor I was overtired, anxiety-ridden, compulsively active, constantly depressed, with recurring fits of paranoia. Turns out I’m normal.”
– Jules Feiffer
This paradoxical quote illustrates how abnormal mental conditions have become normal, how mental health problems have become mainstream, how though we have progressed technologically, we seemed to have regressed mentally. Indeed, sociologists sometimes refer to this alarming phenomenon as an anxiety epidemic.
Each person’s mental health issues can have complex specific causes. While addressing these individual causes, we can’t afford to lose sight of underlying generic causes. That universal cause is pointed to by psychologist William Sheldon of Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons: “Deeper and more fundamental than sexuality, deeper than the craving for social power, deeper even than the desire for possessions, there is a still more generalized and universal craving in the human makeup. It is the craving for knowledge of the right direction—for orientation.” We need a deeper meaning and larger purpose for our life. Without this, we feel as if the ground has been pulled from under us.
Such disorientation is an inevitable result of the materialistic worldview that is mainstream today – a worldview that most of us have adopted, consciously or subconsciously. This worldview reduces us to an aggregation of chemicals bungling around in this big blind world, which too is just a bigger aggregation of chemicals. Such a conception of life causes a profound existential angst which if contemplated unflinchingly would make life almost unbearable.
To make such a pointless life bearable, we divert ourselves from reality by a frenetic immersion in matter. We seek our self-worth by piling up degrees in front of our names, figures in our bank accounts and gizmos in our houses. Or we lose ourselves in the myriad forms of entertainment that swamp us from all directions. While such achievement or enjoyment gives us some titillation, it too triggers further anxiety because none of these externals are really in our control. Life’s vicissitudes can take any and all of these away at any moment. The possibility and indeed the inevitability of such dispossession of the things that shore up our self-worth causes us further anxiety. Ironically, the very things we seek for decreasing our anxiety end up subjecting us to greater anxiety. Thus, both these factors – the fundamental spiritual alienation and the subsequent material infatuation – contribute to our increasing anxiety. These two causes are actually one because spiritual alienation leads to material infatuation, though both fuel each other.
This fundamental cause of anxiety is like the seismic disturbance point below the surface of the earth. From that point originate the vibrations that wreak havoc on the earth’s surface. Similarly, from our spiritual alienation originate the many vulnerabilities that lead to our being afflicted by myriad mental health issues.
Unfortunately, our spiritual alienation is only being aggravated by the onward march of progress in today’s world. As our world has progressed from the modern to the post-modern times, the mainstream intellectual ethos has relativized all knowledges and indeed all knowledge-systems. Consequently, spirituality, despite being a much-bandied word, has been reduced to a feel-good laissez-faire. In this spiritual free-for-all, people frantically try out various ways to feel good without knowing any process to realize the good that exists at their spiritual core. Thus, intellectual confusion exacerbates our spiritual alienation, thereby increasing further our anxieties.
And our material infatuation too has worsened with the advent of technology. With the extensive and intensive use of technology for marketing lifestyle products and even addictive indulgences, people find a whole universe of enjoyment alluring them. Hoping desperately to find pleasure somewhere in this techno-fuelled super-bazaar, they get increasingly obsessed with the materialism that indentures them to anxiety.
To address our anxiety by tackling our spiritual alienation and material infatuation, the Bhagavad-gita stands ready with coherent and cogent spiritual knowledge. It helps us understand that we are at our core spiritual beings and are meant for a life of loving harmony with our source, the whole whose parts we are.
To regain our spiritual wholeness, we can begin by challenging the status quo that has deemed abnormal mental health issues normal. For those intrepid enough to explore the possibility that we are meant for a better life, the Gita’s yogic knowledge shows the way out of the ocean of anxiety to the shore of security and serenity.
Jun 25, 2022
Radhapriya Chawla, ISKCON Toronto Communications